By George Augustine
The awareness of dharma as the underlying principle of all nature is the basic characteristic of a Hindu. Every other principle is considered subordinate to this. There are many definitions of this word and various translations that include “righteousness,” “justice,” “duty,” “religion,” etc., but any or all of these indicate parts of it and consist of something more.
Dharma transcends belief. For a Hindu, it is an inner certitude. It arises from the certainty that upholding dharma is not only the right way, but the only natural way to think and act. Dharma is ethical and adharma, which is the absence of dharma, is unethical and is termed ‘paapa’ (sin). One upholds dharma by rightful conduct; by doing the right thing at the right time at the right place.
Dharma is directly related to one’s consciousness. One can sense dharma in every situation and in every stage and station of our life. It manifests as one’s awareness of a transcendental ideal that prompts us to make decisions and act in a certain way.
Major H. Subramanian defines dharma as “(the) ‘ought consciousness’ – a passion to do only what is right and refrain from doing what is not right is known in our culture as ‘dharma’.” 
Whatever connotations the word ‘dharma’ evoke as applied in a context, it is the idea of ‘Sanatana Dharma’ which knits all Hindus together, whether they be in Nepal, India, or in the Caribbean. Every Hindu knows what dharma is. Every Hindu also knows that dharma is sanatana (without beginning or end, perennial) as it transcends phenomena. It is more than a belief or a maxim which has had a phenomenal birth and which therefore would also have a phenomenal death.
Dharma is bound to the human soul (atman) just as heat is bound to fire, or fluidity to water . Dharma is bound to an object as its inseparable function. When one speaks of ‘Sanatana Dharma,’ one is speaking of an eternal bond that is indivisible from human beings; you cannot separate heat from fire. For an individual, the supreme dharma (the supreme function) is the realization of the supreme truth.
The Puranas and the two Hindu epics, and indeed all great literature, are demonstrative of the active principle of dharma that leads humans on their march to the final realization. The Dharmasutras are ethical guidelines written by human beings for individuals to uphold dharma that will propel them towards the final goal. However, we find from experience that codified ethics are neither rigid nor mandatory, but vary according to time.
At the end of the Mahabharata battle, dharma is shown as irredeemable, except by a subterfuge. “Unlike Rama, Krishna did not adhere to an external code of Dharma. Rather, he saw to the essence of each situation and acted in such a way as to manifest the greatest divine good” . Krishna himself says in the epic: “The era of Kali has arrived, when the laws of a previous age cannot apply” .
Dharma is a natural progression of the human being to its full-fledged function – the realisation of the truth. In order to reach our full function of realisation, we hold on to dharma by thinking and acting in the only right way to think and act in such a circumstance and such a place. We hold on to dharma not for the reward it will fetch or the benefit it will reap, but just for the sake of dharma.
It is in this sense that dharma is mentioned as the “path of religion.” An act of dharma is devoid of motivation itself, because the act as a whole is a response of our natural essence to a situation. An individual upholds dharma not to attain heaven or to avoid hell, but that is the natural instinct.
In order to relate to dharma in modern terminology, it is worthwhile to examine etymology to find the curious relationship of concepts. The word ‘dharma’ is derived from the Sanskrit root ‘dhri’, even as ‘gadh’ is. The English ‘good’ from which ‘god’ is derived is also derived from ‘gadh’.
The etymological relationship points out that the qualitative noun ‘good’ is derived from a verb – ‘to hold fast.’ The idea of ‘goodness’ is derived from a verb. Therefore, it is not an abstract concept, but is derived from something active in consciousness. The word ‘God’ is defined as the “being perfect in goodness” . The worship or pursuit of this perfection of goodness is religion. For Hindus, dharma is the pursuit of perfection of goodness. A thought or action holding fast to dharma is characterised by its goodness. This pursuit is an ethical function and not just a belief or faith. Doing something good for the sake of goodness is an ideal unique to Hindus and is singularly denoted by the term ‘dharma’.
Sanatana Dharma is the link that connects the present to the pre-historic past. It is the oldest religion on earth, and it still exists as vibrant as ever, because it subsists from holding on to goodness. It is demonstrated very clearly in Mahabharata that the upholding of dharma is possible only by humans, not by gods. It falls on Yudhishtira (also called Dharmaputra – ‘son of dharma’) to save dharma from perishing. Dharma comprises the continuum of human consciousness. And the whole of humanity owes to the Hindus for redeeming dharma or positive goodness from the onslaught of evil, which is nothing but positive ignorance that has consumed all other ancient religions in its wake. The ancient slogan: ‘dharmo rakshati rakshite’ (dharma saves the one who saves dharma) speaks for itself.
The greatest expositor of dharma, Sage Vyasa, speaks at the end of Mahabharata: “Dharma is that by which everything endures. It is the substratum of everything. It is untranslatable in any language. Through desire for wealth or out of greed or fear, do not give up dharma, aye, even to save your own life. Dharma is eternal happiness”